Terence O'Rourke/Part 2/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII

THE ROAD TO PARADISE

Alone in his compartment, the adventurer slept fitfully throughout the morning run, and, indeed, for the better part of the following day, while the train drummed swiftly over the plains of old Champagne, Burgundy, "and Franche-Comté.

At eleven o'clock that night he was roused from a nap by a hand that clapped him heartily upon his shoulder. He sat up, blinking, yawning, stretching himself, and shivering; for they were then in the mountains, and the night air is chill and penetrating in those high altitudes.

"Well?" he demanded sourly. "What is it now?"

The train had come to a halt. Through the open door of the compartment naught was visible save the blank darkness of a winter's night, under a sky shrouded with a pall of lowering clouds. Near at hand a small hand lantern swung a foot or more above the ground, its rays lighting up a patch of sodden earth perhaps a yard in diameter, and silhouetting the boots and gaiters of a man, the upper half of whose body was invisible.

Bending over O'Rourke were two others—the guard and a uniformed stranger, whose hand still lay heavy upon the Irishman's shoulder as he continued to peer intently into his face.

"'Tis to be hoped," growled O'Rourke, "that ye will know me the next time we meet, me friend."

But he spoke in English, which the man failed to comprehend. The look of suspicion upon his face, however, was intensified by the ring of the unfamiliar accents.

"What language is it you speak, m'sieur?" he asked peremptorily.

"English," responded O'Rourke in execrable French—French positively mutilated by a strong British accent. "And what's that to ye?" he desired further to know.

"This is the frontier, m'sieur—the frontier of Grandlieu. M'sieur will be pleased to exhibit his passport."

"M'sieur will be pleased to do nothing of the sort." O'Rourke lolled back in his chair and pulled his broad-brimmed, soft hat well down over his eyes. "If ye want to see me passport," he grunted, "ask me courier for it. He has both his own and mine. Now, get out."

But the officer of Grandlieu's frontier guard lingered.

"And m'sieur's courier?" he asked. "Where is he?"

"How the divvle would I be knowing? In the third-class carriage—I know no more than that. Ask for the courier for Lord Delisle, and he will declare himself, probably. A small, quick-looking fellow he will be, with black hair and black eyes."

"Many thanks, milord. Pardon, milord, for the unfortunate but necessary intrusion. Good night, milord."

O'Rourke snorted and snuggled himself within his greatcoat, pretending to woo sleep a second time. The guard and the customs officer sidled respectfully from the compartment and closed the door. O'Rourke did not move. To all appearances he was sound asleep when they returned, chattering excitedly.

"But, milord!" expostulated the man of Grandlieu, jerking open the door and a second time letting in a gust of icy wind.

O'Rourke brought his feet down upon the floor with a bang. He opened his eyes, and they were shining with anger. He opened his mouth, and, with a care to lose nothing of his English accent, cursed the train, France, Grandlieu and the customs official, respectively and comprehensively.

"Milord!" he snorted. "Milord, milord! What the divvle milord is it now? Cannot an Englishman have peace and privacy in a compartment which he has reserved for himself? What is it now?"

"Pardon, milord." The customs official was deferential but determined. "Milord's courier is not on this train."

O'Rourke flew into a veritable transport of passion. He grew red in the face with rage. He waved frantic fists above his head, declaiming with vigor and rhetorical fluency—in English. The two men were visibly awed and impressed. Such profanity—at least, it sounded like profanity—had never been heard either in France or Grandlieu. It was wonderful, inspiring and typically British—to their comprehensions, at least, who were accustomed to regard every traveling boor as an Englishman.

"My courier not on this train?" he concluded. "What divvle's work is this? Why is he not upon this train? What does it mean?"

"Perhaps," insinuated the guard, "milord's courier has made off with milord's luggage."

It was so. O'Rourke, otherwise Lord Delisle, had suspected as much from the first. The man had proven what he had appeared, an untrustworthy scamp. He had decamped with his employer's valuables, to say nothing of his clothing and his passport. O 'Rourke's rage knew no bounds; and the men were correspondingly overawed.

It was truly unfortunate. But, after all, although there was an order about something which they concluded not to enlarge upon, but which evidently had to do with Englishmen purposing to enter Grandlieu, the milord would not be subjected to further discomfort. It was not necessary. One single infraction of the rule would do no harm. No. The milord could proceed to Montbar, from which place it would be possible for him to set forward inquiries after the missing courier.

And again O'Rourke found himself alone in the compartment, with the train crawling slowly on and up a steep mountain side. He was in Grandlieu at last, and at that, despite the order which Duke Victor had evidently issued calling for O'Rourke's detention at the frontier—just as O'Rourke had suspected he would.

O'Rourke hugged himself in the grateful warmth of his overcoat, chuckling inwardly at the deception he had practised upon the two men. It had been well planned. Beyond doubt the order for his apprehension had spoken of an Irishman using most excellent French, and accompanied by a red-headed Irish servant. O'Rourke congratulated himself upon the foresight which had led him to leave Danny in Paris.

He was, in point of fact, just entering upon the danger zone. From that moment on his life was in peril—or at least his liberty and his heart's desire were hanging in the balance. And so—he was comfortable and well pleased, as was strictly in keeping with the disposition of the man.

But it is conceivable that, could he have known of the mark which the customs official had unobtrusively chalked upon the door of the compartment, O'Rourke would not have felt so assured of the man's stupidity, nor so sure that in the end he would win to the side of Madame la Princesse, Beatrix de Grandlieu.

An hour later the Irishman left his compartment and stepped out upon the platform of the railway station at Montbar.

The midnight wind that rushed, shrieking, between the mountainous walls of the narrow, level valley which constitutes the major part of the principality of Grandlieu—an independent state with a total area of some sixty-nine square miles—was bitter cold and searching. The faces of the porters and railway officers, who were forced to attend to outdoor duties, were blue and immobile in its ice-laden breath; and upon the lighted windows of the station itself frost had formed, thick and white.

O'Rourke, noting these things, thought of the warmth of a bed in the Hôtel des Étrangers, and the comfort of a meal, with warm drinks, in the supper room of that hostelry, and was glad that he journeyed no farther that night.

Runners for the three most prominent hotels in the city besieged him with advice bearing upon the surpassing merits of their respective houses. O'Rourke listened to all alike stolidly, and apparently at random indicated him who represented the Hôtel des Etrangers, so avoiding all suspicion of having chosen Chambret's place of shelter with purpose aforethought.

Priding himself upon the neatness of this little strategy, he climbed into a hack and settled himself for what he was assured would be no more than a ten minutes' drive.

His eyes closed and he nodded, thinking dreamily of the fair face pictured in that miniature which rested above his heart. The hack plunged on through the night, rattling and bouncing over a road broad and well macadamized. At intervals electric lights illuminated the vehicle's interior with a bluish and frosty radiance. Buildings, stark and drear, unlighted, loomed on the roadside.

Time dragged. It began to seem a long ten minutes. O'Rourke had understood that the railway station was situated something like a mile beyond the limits of the city of Montbar, but still—a glance out of the window showed him that the bordering line of houses was no longer on either side of the road. The electric lights, also, seemed more infrequently spaced; the intervals of blank obscurity were longer; and when the illumination did come, it showed nothing but frozen fields stretching off into the darkness.

Moreover, the carriage appeared to be ascending a steep grade. O'Rourke puckered his brows, puzzled. Had he mistaken the hotel runner? Or had the uncouth French which he had affected conveyed the wrong meaning to his hearers' comprehensions?

He leaned forward and rapped smartly on the window pane. Promptly the vehicle slowed its speed, and presently it came to a halt. O'Rourke heard the driver climbing down from the box, and the rattle of a carriage lamp as it was detached from its place.

"Curse the fool!" grumbled the Irishman. "All I wanted was a word with him."

A glow of light filled the interior of the vehicle from the right-hand window. Simultaneously the left-hand door was jerked open and a man stepped in.

O'Rourke sat still, looking into the mouth of a revolver. To sit still was the course of prudence. He could do nothing else. His own revolvers were in the hand bag on the floor of the vehicle. But he was biting his lip with vexation, at the thought that he had blundered so blindly into a trap so self-evident.

The intruder was a man larger in every way than was the Irishman himself; and with the odds of the revolver in his. favor, he had O'Rourke entirely at his mercy. He was prompt to press the muzzle of it, a ring of frozen steel, against the Irishman's forehead.

"Monsieur is armed?" he inquired brusquely.

"No," returned O'Rourke sullenly.

"Monsieur will not be angry with me for assuring myself of that fact, I am positive. Will monsieur be kind enough to remove his hands from his pockets, unbutton his overcoat and then hold his hands above his head?"

O'Rourke had no choice. He did precisely as he was bid, unwillingly but with alacrity. Still holding the gun to his head, the man patted each of the Irishman's pockets, with painstaking thoroughness, and found nothing in the shape of a weapon to reward his search.

"That is very good," he announced. "Monsieur will now be kind enough to rebutton his coat and to sit very still for the rest of the journey. The coachman will presently remove the light, but monsieur will be so good as to believe- that I can see in the dark, and that any rash move on his. part will be rewarded with a bullet through his head. François"—this to the driver—"go ahead."

The light was replaced, and in a moment or two the horses were hammering steadily up the mountain road. O'Rourke obeyed orders agreeably enough, debating ways and means whereby he might surprise and overcome his captor. The thing was, possibly, feasible. In the long patches of darkness between the lights, he might spring unexpectedly, dash aside the revolver and throttle the man. On the other hand, he might not succeed. The game was not exactly worth the candle. It was better to wait, to see what opportunity the future might offer. When no other chance remained, it was all very well to stake everything on a single throw; but until that time, O'Rourke, for all his daring, was the man to weigh thoroughly the advisability of each least action.

"May I inquire," he said at length, in his execrable French—it was painful even to O'Rourke to assume such an accent—"what is meant by this outrageous treatment of an Englishman?"

The man, sitting opposite him in the gloom, laughed softly.

"Monsieur the Colonel doubtless is aware of our intentions," he suggested.

"Monsieur the Colonel?" repeated O'Rourke. "I assure ye that there is some mistake here, monsieur—"

"Pray spare yourself the trouble, Colonel O'Rourke. You did very well. Permit me to congratulate you upon confusing our man at the frontier; but still the odds were all against you. We have been expecting you daily, ever since Monsieur Chambret cabled you. Our agents in Paris watched you last night, and saw you take the train for Montbar. Even your—pardon me—your infernal French, could not prevail against such information. Monsieur the Colonel is bold, but I trust he will not be angry if I venture to observe that in this instance he has acted somewhat thoughtlessly. But, perhaps, monsieur, you did not think that we would be so vigilant."

O'Rourke did not reply. He was caught; there was no disguising that unpalatable fact. Anything that he might say would do no good; moreover, he feared to speak lest the anger in his voice should betray his deep chagrin.

"No? You refuse to answer me, monsieur? Believe me, I should be desolated"—the man mocked—"to be lost to your good graces, Colonel O'Rourke, merely because we have succeeded in outwitting you. In all fairness, that was our business. Could you have expected us to act otherwise?"

"No," admitted O'Rourke, caught by the fellow's tone of good-natured raillery; "but surely ye don't expect me to be pleased with meself, monsieur? Faith!" And he laughed bitterly.

"So, then, I have made no mistake, after all? You admit that you are Colonel Terence O'Rourke?"

"Admit it, me friend? Sure, and ye did not expect me to deny it? Whilst there's a fighting chance, monsieur, I am prepared to lie with the best of ye; but when ye have me, body, soul and breeches—I'll throw up me hands, just as I did when ye asked me to, so politely. But," he continued, talking to make time, and to throw the fellow off his guard if possible, "could ye favor me with a bit of a word as to me probable fate, monsieur? Sure, and 'tis no crime for a man, even an Irishman, to journey into Grandlieu?"

"No—no crime, monsieur. But, perhaps, an indiscretion. Shall we call it a breach of international etiquette, monsieur—taking into consideration all the circumstances?"

"Faith, would ye make me out a Power, together with that precious duke of yours?" O'Rourke laughed.

"The comparison is not unapt, monsieur." His captor bowed—and maintained the muzzle of the revolver within a foot of O'Rourke's heart. "Not unapt," he repeated; "which you are to consider as the reason why I am taking such care of you, monsieur."

"I would ye were less careful. Is there anything now, monsieur, which might tempt ye to carelessness—for one little moment?"

There was an instant's silence. Then the man chuckled disagreeably. "We are arrived," he announced briefly, glancing out of the window for the fraction of a second, and immediately resuming his vigilance.

The carriage stopped. There were the sounds of voices, of rapid footsteps, of the jingling of bits and the pawing of hoofs, clear upon the frosty air. After what seemed an interminable wait, something clanged loudly metallic, and a face appeared at the window. The door was opened with a jerk, and a man's voice invited "Monsieur the Colonel O'Rourke" to be pleased to alight.

He was not pleased; but an instant's consideration of the menacing weapon constrained him to give in with what grace he had to command, and, rising, he jumped lightly to the frozen ground. At once he was seized from behind, his arms twisted into his sides, a rope passed about them and drawn tight.

"The divvle!" swore O'Rourke—but under his breath; outwardly he maintained an impassive aspect.

Before him loomed the steep, rock wall of a castle. He had heard somewhat of this castle from the lips of Madame la Princesse herself, in former, happier days. They called it Castle Grandlieu. It was centuries old—a grim reminder of the days when from this rocky aerie the lords of Grandlieu held the countryside in meek subjection, harrying the lowlands of France and taking toll of all unfortunate passers-by.

It had been the whim of the princes of Grandlieu to live in this castle, keeping it with all its medieval atmosphere—its moat and drawbridge, its portcullis and battlements and towers, all as they had stood frowning down upon the valley when first erected back in the darkness of the Middle Ages.

Something in its bleak and austere showing sent a chill to the marrow of the Irishman. It bulked as grim and forbidding as a tomb. It—who knew?—might be his tomb. It was said, indeed, that Duke Victor was a famous duelist and one invincible. If he offered O'Rourke the chance to fight, there would be an instant acceptance; of that one might feel assured. And who should prophesy the outcome?

Not the O'Rourke of Castle O'Rourke, be certain. There was a legend in his family that a penniless O'Rourke was unconquerable; and vice versa.

Was this, then, to be the end of his epic?